The deepest distinction among human beings is not between the bad and the good, but between those who know they are bad and those who do not. Yet, strangely, it is not the blatantly wicked who have the greatest difficulty seeing this, but the carefully obedient. Scrupulous “obedience” is, more often than we are aware, thinly veiled disobedience. Obedience, therefore, can be damning.
Matthew’s gospel shows us a great surprise: that the strange key to participation in the joys of God’s kingdom is not qualifying ourselves for it, but frankly acknowledging our disqualification — a disqualification that manifests itself not only in rule-breaking, but also in rule-keeping. Keeping the rules no more extinguishes the sin in our hearts than buckets of gasoline extinguish the flames in our fireplace.
Time after time in Matthew 18–20 a common question pops up, despite being asked by very different kinds of people.
That question is: “What’s the least I can do?”
In Matthew 18:21–35, Peter asks Jesus how often he is required to forgive his brother. “As many as seven times? (Matt 18:21).” Peter is asking what the least is that he can do with respect to forgiveness.
The very next conversation is between Jesus and the Pharisees (Matt 19:1–12). As the Pharisees ask about divorce, essentially they enquire, “What’s the least I can do with respect to marriage?” (Matt 19:3).
Finally, a rich young man approaches Jesus wondering what he must do to have eternal life (Matt 19:16–22). His query climaxes these three accounts by presenting us with the question that is behind the other questions. He asks, “What’s the least I can do with respect to obedience?”
In all three we are dealing with the same question in different clothing, yet this third instance takes us to the root of all three. Here we have come to the common concern raised: What is the minimum obedience I can render to get God off my back?
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matt 19:16).
It’s hard to get the right answer when you ask the wrong question. Obedience is important, but irrelevant to gaining access to eternal life. Heaven is not won with obedience. It is given.
Still, Jesus plays along: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself ’” (Matt 19:17–19).
Biblically, there are two ways to sum up the law. One is the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:3–17; Deut 5:7–22). The other is the double command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5) and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18), which is how Jesus sums up the law in Matthew 22:37–40. In both lists, we have vertical elements pertaining to our relationship with God followed by horizontal elements that pertain to our relationships with others. Here, Jesus extracts the horizontal dimension to both summaries of the law and puts them before the young man. Of the Ten Commandments Jesus has ignored numbers one through four, and of the double commandment he has ignored the first part. In both cases, the vertical dimension is omitted.
Jesus has put before the rich young man all the commandments that are externally manageable.
Consequently, the young man replies confidently: “All these I have kept.” Yet his question remains: “What do I still lack?” Even upon such brazen moral optimism, the young man knows something is not right. Those of us who believe ourselves to have kept the rules before God know the surprising emptiness resulting from such rigorous, though hollow, obedience.
“Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matt 19:21–22).
Jesus was not dangling the carrot of law-keeping in front of this young man, egging him on in his self-justifying law-observance. Instead, Jesus has lovingly set up the young man to show him his idolatry. Jesus has slipped in the First Commandment (Exod 20:3) without the young man noticing. He exposes the man’s sin by showing him that his material possessions were his god. And, sadly, the young man prefers the idol — and goes away sorrowful.
At this point Jesus seizes the opportunity to teach his disciples a lesson:
And Jesus said to his disciples, “‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (Matt 19:23–25).
It’s puzzling at first to modern readers why the disciples should be so astonished. If it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, isn’t the solution simply to avoid wealth? This was not how life worked for the first-century Jew. Financial gain was seen as a direct sign of God’s approval. Material blessing was viewed as linked to spiritual blessing (Deut 28:1–6, 8, 11–12). When the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” they are saying, “If those at the top of the social stratosphere, upon whom God has so clearly smiled, can’t get in, what hope is there for the rest of us, who don’t have that kind of obvious divine favor?”
Jesus responds by rebuilding hope on the proper foundation: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). “It’s worse than you think,” says Jesus — “and so much better.” According to your intuitive, natural, moralizing, domesticated, get-what-you-work-for understanding of the way you think God relates to people, yes, this is impossible. But with God — according to the wild, lavish, all out of proportion, get-far-more-than-you-asked-for-as-long-as-you-don’t-try-to-pay-for-it understanding of the way God relates to his people, all things are possible.
The grace of Jesus surprises even the carefully obedient.
This is an adaptation from Surprised by Jesus, a new title by Dane Ortlund. In this vital exploration of the character of Jesus, Ortlund leads us further into the rescuing power of God’s grace. Published with permission from 10ofThose.